Thursday, June 29, 2006

Upcoming Carnival of Gamers

[Site News]

The next Carnival of Gamers is coming up on July 6 (next Thursday), and this time around it's being hosted by Ron "Monkey Island" Gilbert, over at Grumpy Gamer. Once again, I'll be submitting a post, and hopefully, unlike last time, my submission will actually appear in the Carnival.

Basically, the idea is that I pick one of my posts from the last month and submit it; it's then included in basically a list of posts from blogs around the web that forms a quick tour of the game-blog world for that month. I want a post that:
a) strongly relates to computer gaming or game design,
b) was posted within the month leading up to 6 July,
c) is memorable and worth reading, and
d) would encourage new visitors to read more of my blog and return on future occasions.

I thought I'd throw the floor open to you, my readers. What post do YOU think I should submit? What do you think is the best of the last month at The Dust Forms Words?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Preparing To Say "I Told You So"

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Remember back when I told you that the forthcoming Wii Super Smash Brothers Brawl would feature Solid Snake from Metal Gear? And then when I told you that it would also have other Non-tendo characters? Sure, I stole that news from other, better game news sites, but these days that's just a fancy way of saying cutting-edge journalism.

Well, you may remember I -also- predicted that among those unannounced Non-tendo characters we'd be seeing some Squeenix loving. I believe I made specific mention of Chrono from Chrono Trigger.

SOMEHOW, in all that fanboi gushing, I totally missed this piece of news: the game soundtrack is going to feature music by Nobuo Uematsu. You know, famed Final Fantasy composer? The guy whose music went on a concert tour around the world? The guy responsible for "One-Winged Angel", the piece with the choir that plays behind the Sephiroth boss fight at the end of FF VII, and, if I remember correctly, the equivalent scene in Kingdom Hearts?

Yep, I'm sure this has absolutely nothing to do with any Squeenix characters appearing in the next Smash Bros. Definitely. Nothing from Square-Enix. Super Smash Bros Brawl will definitely not feature, say, Sephiroth.

I'm even now assuming the "I Told You So" pose; it requires standing on one leg and some facial contortions, so I may look odd for the next month or two until we get confirmation. You can pass the time by quietly worshipping my god-like and incisive powers of deduction, which are not in any way based on wishful thinking and giant leaps of faith.

Mega Man: Powered Up Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I never liked Mega Man. It was a platformer. It featured one-mistake deaths and bottomless pits. It was not my cup of tea.

But then, that's what I thought about Metroid, until I played Metroid Zero Mission, and discovered it was really a lot of fun. It's what I thought about Castlevania, but Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance turned out to be one of my best gaming finds of the year. So I thought maybe it was time to bury the axe with the old shiny blue robot and try out something from his more recent oeuvre.

It's worth noting that really good games for the PSP have not been as thick on the ground as I ideally would have liked, so I made a plan to remedy this by picking up Mega Man: Powered Up for my Sony handheld. It's a remake of the original, with cute super-deformed characters, and some modern gameplay concessions. It looked ideal - I could return to the roots of the series, without having to put up with 20-year-old NES game design.

Bah. Capcom obviously didn't remake Powered Up quite as much as I would have hoped. It still features one-fall deaths. And you know what? It doesn't really matter what else they've thrown in there, because none of it is going to get me past the sheer frustration of playing a difficult level almost to the end and then being booted all the way back to the start from losing my last life on a stupid jumping puzzle.

Total play time spent with Powered Up = about 15 minutes, just long enough to remember why I hate eighties platformer design. I'm done now. It can go back on the shelf, and never be played again.

No, I don't claim that this is a representative review of the game. It's just the reason that this game was a complete and dismal failure in interesting me in playing it, and you know, there's not that many games that manage that.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

OFLC Prevents Thoughtcrime, Bans Reservoir Dogs

[News] [Politics] [Computer Gaming]

Good news, fellow citizens and prolefeed readers! The Office of Film and Literature Classification, also known as OFLC, or, colloquially, Miniclass, has once again saved loyal citizens of Australia from accidentally committing thoughtcrime, which as we all know would be doubleplusungood. Publisher Eidos Interactive's latest videogame, Reservoir Dogs, an adaptation of the Quentin Tarantino film of the same name, was last Friday refused classfication by Miniclass on the grounds that it was unsuitable for the highest classification rating available for videogames, being MA15+.

This means that Reservoir Dogs, in the form it was submitted, can not legally be advertised, sold, or purchased in Australia. Distributor Atari Australia has chosen not to release the game in Australia, rather than change and resubmit the game or contest the ruling.

1984 to one side, this is the continuation of a very disturbing trend. Reservoir Dogs joins a steadily growing list of games which have been completely banned in Australia, including some very good games such as the original version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, some very bad games such as Manhunt and Postal, and some games that nobody can make up their mind about, like Mark Ecko's Getting Up.

Was Reservoir Dogs one of the good ones, or the bad ones? Well, if you're an Australian, you'll never get to find out, because you can't legally get your hands on a copy without leaving the country. Did it deserve to be banned? You won't know, because you can't play the game.

This is why censorship decisions are so dangerous and insidious. The nature of censorship means that you have no way of coming to your own opinion about whether the decision was justified. (Well, personally, I don't think government censorship is EVER justified, but you don't have to go that far to still appreciate the problem.)

How did the game get banned?

Now, as far as I can find, OFLC have not issued a statement of their reasons for the classification decision. However, assuming that the game bears exactly the same level of content as the original film, or slightly less, it would still be refused classification (read: banned). Australia does not have R18+ or X classification categories for games. Games that do not fit into MA15+ cannot be advertised, sold, or purchased in Australia.

Who the heck are the OFLC?

The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC), who are not really known as Miniclass (but probably should be), are a body established under the Classification (Publications, Films and Video Games) Act 1995 to act as the classification authority for the Commonwealth of Australia.

What is the mandate of the OFLC?

You know, you'd think they'd have one. Most statutory organisations actually have a little section in their legislation which sets out their legislative objectives - that is, the goals they are to strive for on behalf of the Australian community. As best as I can tell, the OFLC does not. Which is a fairly critical ommission. Are they established to police the morality of the Australian community (which seems to be what they're doing)? Or are they established to inform consumer choices and regulate appropriate channels of advertising for potentially offensive content?

What do the OFLC take into account in making decisions?

Section 11 of the Classification Act specifies the matters to be taken into account in making classification decisions, and contains the following:
The matters to be taken into account in making a decision on the classification of a publication, a film or computer game include:
(a) the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults; and
(b) the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the publication, film or computer game; and
(c) the general character of the publication, film or computer game, including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character; and
(d) the persons or class of persons to or amongst whom it is published or is intended or likely to be published.
So as you can see, it's not just a checklist - they can't just tick the box for "murder" and declare it to be not worthy of classification. They have to take into account the artistic and literary merit - and don't laugh, the US Supreme Court was quite happy to find that David Jaffe's opus God of War was possessed of overriding artistic merit. They have to take into account the general character of the publication. And did they do that? It's a bit hard to tell when we can't see the game to make up our own minds.

How does the OFLC make decisions about the content of a game?

Well, the OFLC gives out very little info on this, but I understand it's done entirely on the basis of the information submitted by the party submitting the game for classification. That's right - they don't play the game. Are alarm bells ringing for you, too? How do they possibly judge the artistic merit of a game without playing it? Sure, you could say that presumably the developer/publisher/distributor puts their best foot forwards, and if the OFLC can't give it an appropriate classification based on that, then they're not going to do any better playing it themselves. But that's just rubbish. When you're making a decision as a government body to block content from the Australian public, it's just not good enough to point at a private company and say, "Well, they said it had violence in it." As a principle of administrative law, they're required to satisfy themselves of each matter relevant to the decision, and reading someone else's precis doesn't even come close to meeting that.

But aren't they just games? Why does it matter?

Games are a form of expression, just as much as film or comics. Up to now, commercial releases have been generally fairly lacking in intellectual depth... much like comics in the 60s. But just like comics, they're capable of just about anything you care to say with them. Let's put it this way - and you can happily assume the best possible version of the games above, where they really nail the spirit and message of the source material in a tasteful and meaningful fashion. If they had been videogames, ALL of the following content would have been banned.

* V for Vendetta
* Watchmen
* Sandman
* Swamp Thing
* The Invisibles

* Lolita
* American Psycho
* Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
* Catch-22
* The Satanic Verses

* Taxi Driver
* The Exorcist
* Pulp Fiction
* American Beauty
* Silence of the Lambs
* Seven

* Full Metal Jacket
* Omen
* The Shining
* Lolita

And whether you like those titles or think they're gratuitous, you can't help but agree that they have been major and definitive moments in the history of art, and their existence has been thoroughly worthwhile if only for the debate it's generated. I'm quite happy to stand by that list. If those titles had been created with their complete original narrative and artistic decisions, in the medium of a piece of software with the occasional bout of interactivity, they would have been banned in Australia. And that's just me thinking for about five minutes - I'm sure I've missed some real corkers of "R" type content that we'd weep to see lost.

But at least it's not political, right?

Um... yeah. If you say so. But you should probably be aware that there's some pretty solid evidence that the Mark Ecko decision occurred in the context of some political pressure coming down on the OFLC from certain Queensland politicians. And while the OFLC doesn't seem to be, strictly speaking, subject to the direction of the Minister, it's worth noting that the members of the board are appointed directly by the Minister, and don't have tenure - that is, if they don't please the Minister, they probably don't get reappointed. There are also certain circumstances under which the Governor-General (read: Minister) can fire members of the board. It'd be a brave board member indeed who said, "No, Minister, we think Reservoir Dogs is actually quite artistically good, and we're going to classify it no matter what you might think."

So what can I do about this?

Make noise! Write to the OFLC, and express your extreme displeasure that the Australian public are denied the right to make their own decisions about games as rational adults. Write to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, and let him know how unhappy you are with the current state of Australian classification legislation, particularly the lack of an R classification for video games. Get the attention of your local member of Parliament, either state or federal, and convince them to raise their voice on the floor of the House!

Remember, right now, as we speak, someone is contemplating creating the Citizen Kane of games, and deciding that it's too risky to make a huge artistically-interesting game and have it blacklisted by the censors. They're going to look at Australian legislation, and just give up and make another bad Half-Life clone instead.

Note: That Attorney-General link above goes to an email address that's just a reasonable guess based on the structure of Federal MP Parliament House email addresses. It may not exist, and Mr Ruddock may or may not check it. For some reason Mr Ruddock seems hesitant to provide Australia with an email addresss... but you can always ring him on (02) 9482 7111!

Towards A Casual RPG (Part 2)

[Game Design] [RPG]

This is the continuation of my earlier post, Towards A Casual RPG. The question under discussion is:

What would it take to create a tabletop-style roleplaying game (RPG) which would appeal to a mass-market casual audience?

I had a lot of great feedback on the last post. This time around, I'm going to talk about what makes a good casual videogame, as a preliminary to discussing how that might be applied to a tabletop-style RPG. This just comes from my reading on the many sites that routinely discuss casual gaming; feel free to correct or add if you have additional experience or reading in the area!

I should say that when I'm talking casual games, what I'm think of are short-span games like Tetris or Bejewelled or Dance Dance Revolution, and games with a long span but short sessions and low complexity like Animal Crossing, Nintendogs or Puzzle Pirates. I'd be willing to accept arguments for the LucasArts point-and-click games as casual games (at least in some respects), or the core Pokemon games (which seem to have succeeded in this market despite disobeying a lot of the rules below).

I'm not talking about World of Warcraft - while a lot of people cite WoW as a "casual-friendly game", that's just by comparison to the weltering complexity of other MMOGs. A game that requires a continuous three-hour or more session in groups of five people for completion of an early-game goal is NOT a casual-friendly game.

So here's my list.

Jargon-free: The game and the game elements can be described without resorting to technical terms, particular names made up for the game, esoteric notations, or references to other games.

One-button design: A casual game should use as few different inputs as possible; the ideal casual game would allow all play to be accomplished through presses of a single button.

Inclusive aesthetic: The aesthetic of the game must be inclusive of first time players; it should not promise punishing levels of challenge, or gruesome death for failure, and should as far as possible be designed in bright colours, using large and legible fonts, and with an uncluttered interface.

Small play sessions: A casual game is not something people should need to schedule time for - it's something they can fit in between other engagements. No single play session should commit the player to more than a few minutes, although the player may be able to opt to continue playing indefinitely. Nevertheless, a player can exit from the game at a moment's notice.

Easy re-entry: A player can play the game, leave it for months, and return to the game without any disconnect. If the game has continuing goals, the nature of those goals and the status of progression towards them is available to the player at a glance. Likewise, the remainder of the state of play can be discerned in seconds.

Multiple redundant cueing: Signals from the game should be conveyed in multiple ways - through the use of colour, sound, and/or text. This not only makes the game more acessible to those with visual or hearing impairments, or with older or non-standard hardware, but means it is more likely to deliver information in a way that the player understands intuitively.

Inflated numbers: I've seen at least one comment that suggests it's best to add a "zero" to the end of all your numbers that you show players for casual games. For example, 1000 is better than 100. I'm not sure of the necessary truth of this or whether it translates well to RPGs, but it's worth mentioning.

Clearly marked options: Important options should be clearly marked, easy to locate, and have titles that clearly describe the function and properties of the option in plain English. Options should be confined to relevant choices and not present the user with more than (say) three possibilities for any setting.

Easy to access: The game needs to have as few barriers as possible between the decision to play and the act of playing. This means ideally the game has no install or auto installs, plays in a browser, plays on a console, is plug and play hardware, has no save games or almost instant save-loading, has few loading screens, and doesn't make you sit through a lot of developer credits before you see "Push Start to Begin". That is to say, it features low or no setup time.

This is really what I've been thinking about insofar as a casual RPG. Feel free to discuss what I've missed out, and how you think these could be applied to an RPG. Next time around, I'll be talking about what features I think a casual RPG would have to have to succeed, and maybe some games that have come close in the past.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself, And Also Idiots

[News] [Computer Gaming] [Politics]

Credit for all of the following goes to Water Cooler Games. You could, of course, just have gone there yourself and read this, but it's a worthwhile story, and Watercooler is at times at an esoteric site, and this really should have gotten even more attention than it did.

Chapter One: Last month Reuters ran an article where they claimed that terrorist groups were making mods for games such as Battlefield 2, with the intention of recruiting gamers into terrorist cells. These alleged mods let you play as Arabs where the goal was to shoot and kill American soldiers. This startling revelation, claims Reuters, was revealed to the American House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence by an intelligence contractor, who showed video of said mod.

Chapter Two: It is revealed that the video in question is not created by Al Quaeda, but instead is the work of a member of the PlanetBattlefield forums, and is not even in fact a mod, but is footage of the official BF2 expansion, Special Forces, with a voiceover by Team America World Police's Trey Stone. So it looks like someone is pretty stupid; Water Cooler Games blames Reuters.

Chapter Three: Reuters is cleared of charges of stupidity, though still guilty of a less than thorough investigation of the facts. The claim that the video was an Al Quaeda mod was not Reuters' interpretation of the facts, but that of the Defence intelligence contractor. Which is to say, top defence experts advising the American government at the highest level on this matter were unable to tell the difference between (a) terrorist recruiting material, and (b) an amateur parody video featuring footage from a popular commercial videogame. Put another way, the evidence that the American government is receiving of the existence and scope of terrorist activities provably consists of, in part, a domestic fan comedy.

Chapter Four: Water Cooler makes the transcripts of the hearing easily available.

Chapters Five and Six: Follow-up stories appear via Reuters and Nightline.

Water Cooler Games deserves a lot of acknowledgement for following this story; it's deeply disturbing. I can't think of a time when there's been such an obvious gap between legislators and a cultural group since the sixties. It's not that gamers and lawmakers don't see eye to eye - it's that there is so profound a lack of understanding as to be terrifying. I was going to make some sort of joke about the WMD evidence being screenshots of Command and Conquer but in retrospect I'm so profoundly unsettled by this that I'd rather not trivialise the issue. Take notice, gamers: they're not just marginalising us and treading on our rights - they're scared of us, and that's a much, much more dangerous thing.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Casey and the Donuts

[Personal] [Film]

We interrupt your regularly scheduled gaming and geek culture discussion to bring you the following video:

This is Casey, a friend of mine, eating 12 Krispy Kreme donuts in seven minutes, with a little bonus something at the end. Filmed and edited, I understand, by people who aren't me. Pure cinematic gold. I think a certain someone needs to start writing their Oscar acceptance speech.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I have memories. Horrible, horrible traumatic memories. They date from a time in the late 80s, when a friend who shall remain nameless dragged out his NES, fired up the original Castlevania, and handed me the controller.

As those who have played it will know, the original Castlevania is a hardcore game. It is not for those faint of heart, or slow of wit, or really for anyone who doesn't have thumbs of Mercurian speed and a nearly bottomless tolerance for frustration. In the course of my time with that game, I honed my pre-existing loathing for platformers to a new and nigh-on superhuman level. Oh, how I hated that game.

So you can understand that I was a little skeptical when I started hearing talk that these "new-wave" Castlevania games of the last half-decade or so were really quite good, actually.

Our story jumps to about three months ago, when I was cruising the bargain bin at the local Games Wizards and happened to come across a little late-release GBA title called the Castlevania Double Pack. This modestly priced package promised to deliver not only Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, which by all accounts was rather good, but also its purportedly superior follow-up, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrows. The prospect of two complete games in a single game-pak, priced to please and portable to boot was too much. I decided to give Castlevania another chance.

And I'm glad I did. Harmony of Dissonance is definitely one of the better games in my non-small collection of GBA titles. Gone is the punishing difficulty of its ancestor. Instead, Harmony of Dissonance offers free-roaming exploration of not one but two giant castles, with gameplay more than a little reminiscent of the 2D Metroid titles. You wander around, finding keys to doors, increasing your abilities to be able to jump higher and slide through tight gaps (and so forth), and then exploring the new areas that these discoveries unlock. The hero this time around is Juste Belmont (descendant of the original game's Simon Belmont) and he's supposedly on a quest to save the beautiful Lydie. (Actually he seems a lot more emotionally preoccupied with his buddy and rival Maxim than with anyone in particular of the female gender, but whatever.)

If anything, Harmony of Dissonance is too easy. You acquire several sets of magical power as you progress through the game, which combine with the game's "subweapons" (of which there are six, although you can only carry one at a time) to produce powerful magical attacks. Some of these attacks are so powerful that they will connect with a nearby enemy five or six times a second for significant damage, and continue doing so for some five or six seconds (after which you can immediately recast the spell). This turns the majority of bosses into less of an exercise in skill, and more of an application of brute force. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you are able to carry around a disproportionately large stock of healing potions which can be consumed at the drop of a hat to set you back on your feet.

Still, the fun in Harmony of Dissonance comes less from the combat and more from the exploration, and the game definitely shines here. It's always clear whether you can or cannot reach a new area with the skills you possess. Your travels are marked out on a set of very clear maps of the castle,which make it easy to see where you haven't been to yet, and there's very rarely a point where you don't have several new things to try out. The castle itself is quickly revealed to actually be two castles, one hovering in a somewhat generic "dimenson of darkness", each castle possessing a parallell layout to the other. Predictably, solving problems in one castle occasionally yields a result in the other, and switching between the two castles is often key to progressing.

One place where the exploration could have been better crafted becomes more and more apparent as you play through the game, and that is the matter of backtracking. You are regularly required to travel from one remote location in the castle to another, often passing through long stretches of terrain you've already conquered. Luckily, the design of the game and its lack of difficulty means you're never faced with having to re-face a frustrating section you didn't enjoy the first time, but nevertheless this could have been better crafted. There are a range of teleporter-style rooms to facilitate your travel, but these are ever so slightly less frequent than would be ideal, and there are a particular couple of locations that always take several minutes of travel to return to whenever you want to try something new.

Graphically, the game is well suited to what it claims to be, but excels neither technically nor artistically. The castle contains a somewhat predictable array of gothic hallways, spiralling clocktowers, and skull-lined catacombs, but you never really need to take a moment to admire how good it looks. Interestingly, it was clearly decided at a late point in the game that certain of the game sprites (including the protagonist, Juste) didn't sufficiently stand out from the background, and so these characters bear a strange blue outline to enhance their visibility on screen. I suspect this would have been more an issue if I were playing it on the original GBA that didn't feature the backlit screen, as opposed to my significantly more friendly DS. Still, congratulations to the developers for being willing to so quickly sacrifice the visual aesthetic to create a more playable game. It's a shame about the sound, though, which is really quite bland and forgettable.

The structure of the game is perfectly suited to a handheld. Rarely does any single task or point of exploration take more than a couple of minutes (including boss fights), and although there are discrete save rooms that must be discovered to record your progress, you are also given the option at any point to save your game to your last save room, including all achievements since you last visited it. This allows you to travel to distant locations to check if you can move past them without worrying about the long trek back if it turns out you can't.

In addition to the obvious goal of finshing the game's plot, there are also side goals which include achieving 200% map exploration (that's 100% in each of the two castles), discovering each of the game's three alternative endings, discovering and defeating one of every monster in the game, and (for some reason) collecting a full set of furniture to decorate an empty room in the basement. Not all of these tasks give any sort of reward, but they're clearly marked and still kind of fun to shoot for.

I can thoroughly recommend Harmony of Dissonance to anyone who hasn't already played it, particularly if you like the free-roaming exploration-based gameplay made famous by such classics as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, and although I'm a bit Castlevania-ed out for now, I'll certainly be coming back to play Aria of Sorrows in the near future.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Towards a Casual RPG

[RPG] [Game Design]

What would it take to make a casual tabletop-style roleplaying game (RPG)?

I posted previously about the Steve Jackson workshop I attended at Conflux, and talked about context-sensitive rules and when to use the "crunchy bits". The other interesting thing that came out of that really only occurred in passing.

Towards the end of that session, I asked a question along the following lines:
The biggest increasing market in videogames at the moment is in casual games; games which can be learned quickly, are low on complexity and jargon, and can be
played in short sessions with little to no set-up. A particular success of casual games has been attracting new consumers into the videogaming marketplace. Considering that you've said that attracting new consumers has been one of the most significant challenges facing traditional roleplaying, do you think there's a potential to develop "casual roleplaying"? Or are RPGs inherently non-casual?
Steve's answer was, "I don't know if you could make a casual RPG, but the person who does will make a fortune."

Naturally, that set me thinking. Exactly what would it take to make a tabletop-style RPG that appeals to a casual market? It's an intriguing enough question that I'd like to throw it open to everyone who reads this blog. Post comments, post on your own blog, discuss the topic. I have a list of thoughts and specifications that I'm happy to share, but before I blog them I want to let you have your own shot so I don't contaminate you with my assumptions.

Let me know if you post on another site - I'll provide linkage to you when I write up my thoughts on the subject.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Monty Hall Paradox

[ARG] [Thinky Stuff]

Okay, apparently everyone in the world is aware of the Monty Hall Paradox except for me. Warning: If you're a Perplex City player, the link above and the discussion below will spoil card #174 Jaunty Paul for you, which is what this is coming out of. But.. if you're not a probability nut, and I mean a nut, and you haven't seen this before, you might do yourself a favour to read on anyway.

It goes like this: You're on a gameshow, and you're asked to choose between three doors. Behind two of the three doors are goats. Behind the other door is a yacht. You get to choose one door, and you win whatever is behind it. You pick door A. The gameshow host steps foward before you open the door, and says, "Are you sure about that choice? Do you want to change your mind?" He opens door C, and shows that there is a goat behind door C. The gameshow host always opens a door and reveals a goat at this stage in the program, regardless of whether the player has chosen the correct door.

The question: What are your chances of winning the yacht if you stick with door A? What are your chances if you switch to door B?

So my first answer was, "That's easy, it's a 1 in 2 chance no matter whether you stick with A or go with B." Wrong.

So my second answer was, "Well, you could say it's a 1 in 3 chance, no matter which you choose. But it's still even odds." Wrong.

The correct answer is: you have a 1 in 3 chance if you stick with door A, but your odds improve to 2 in 3 if you switch doors. To put it another way, you are more likely to win the yacht if you switch. A player who always switches at this point in the routine will win the yacht 2 out of 3 times.

That is, on your first guess, you have a 2 out of 3 chance of being wrong, so when the choice is offered, and you have (more likely than not) chosen the wrong door, it makes sense to jump ship to the other one.

Huh? Arrgh! My brain hurts.

The Wikipedia entry gives a good illustration:
It may be easier to appreciate the result by considering a hundred doors instead of just three. In this case there are 99 doors with goats behind them and 1 door with a prize. The player picks a door; 99% of the time, the player will pick a door with a goat. Thus, the chances of picking the winning door at first are very small: only 1%. The game host then opens 98 of the other doors revealing 98 goats and offers the player the chance to switch to the only other unopened door. On 99 out of 100 occasions the other door will contain the prize, as 99 out of 100 times the player first picked a door with a goat. At this point a rational player should always switch.
Well, yes, that sounds good when you say it like that, but I still don't see how it squares up with the fact that there are two doors, and the yacht is just as likely to be behind either one. The probability that I've chosen the wrong one doesn't affect the probability that a given door hides the yacht.

And this is why I parted ways with maths in the eighth grade and have never seen eye to eye with it since. Oh, and I solved the damn Perplex City card. Grr.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Laying Down The Lore

[Game Design]

So I was reading Aggro Me, like the hardcore Everquest fan that I am (ha!) when I came across this post. Quick summary: the author talks about ways of conveying lore in game design, and comes to (in my opinion) largely the wrong conclusions.

It's a growing problem. You've built a MMOG, or a large scale RPG, or somesuch, and you've gone to the trouble of fleshing out an unbelievably detailed backstory for the world. You've got history, you've got economy, you've got political boundaries, important figures, well-known works of art, myths, folktales, idioms, and in-jokes. And do your players care? No, they want to know exactly what the drop rate is on the Tier 3 armour in Big Evil Demon's Lair.

Where there's a problem, of course, there'll be an attempted solution, and big name MMOGs have them by the truckload. We've got the whole gamut of creativity and intelligence, including:
* unskippable cutscenes
* quest text in a tiny font that you skip as quickly as possible
* uninspiring bonus NPC dialogue that you have no incentive to read through
* random utterances from speaking enemies
* badly written in game books
* ancient writings engraved on half-buried stones
* the 40 page booklet packaged with the game

In short, no one's really trying. The industry appears to have collectively analysed the problem and thrown its hands up in defeat.

Which is a shame, because it's really not all that hard. Players will quite happily imbibe lore - yes, not just those hardcore ones who cosplay your MMOG in real life. You just have to know how to sell it. And the trick is: pull, don't push.

Don't try to get people to read buckets of annoying flavour text at the same time as you're offering them a new quest. People want the instant gratification of accepting the quest - they're not going to read. Same thing when giving out quest rewards. Gee - do I want to read this long annoying speech, or would I rather press the green button and get my new Sword of Reaping? (Guild Wars, I'm specifically looking at you.)

Stop trying to jam the lore down their throats. It doesn't seem relevant, the player doesn't have to know it, and so they won't - they'll move on without it. Instead, give the player a reason to seek the lore.

Have a broken down ruin, inhabited by a single respawning named enemy ghost that drops no loot. You'll instantly have a conversation topic throughout the zone that has no end - "What's the deal with this ruin?" Players who know the story will tell it; you start a tradition of oral lore that may encourage storytelling around other events. Don't add a reward around it - if you add a way to "solve" or "beat" it, it trivialises the content. Your dungeons are beatable - this is just here for the story.

Have a zone where part of the scenery is the bones of giant creatures - and have a really good story ready to go with those bones when people ask. Use it to hint at future content - people love lore that they can use to guess what might be coming down the pipeline. World of Warcraft has several zones with such big bones - but the story of the bones is never very engaging, and is often related to a nearby quest. You finish the quest, and then you feel like you're "done" with the bones.

Good lore isn't solvable. It's not something you hear about, and then finish. It's an ongoing dialogue with the world. It's what's still out there and relevant when you've finished every quest. It's the mysteries that lurk on the edges of your game. Ashbringer was good lore for World of Warcraft because you couldn't find the sword. I suspect it will be very disappointing when the sword is finally added. Gwen worked in Guild Wars because she didn't do anything useful -you interact with her, she follows you around, but you can't solve her.

Players look for reasons. They want to know why. But it's not a deep why. Why is there a mad brooding wizard at the top of the tower? Because you have to kill him to get the Armour of Unobtainium. A gameplay reason will be accepted more readily than a plot reason. If you want plot to become meaningful, it must happen (in at least some instances) in the absence of gameplay.

In short, don't take the lore to the player - bring the player to the lore. Give them a reason to ask why, wait for them to ask, and have your answers ready when they do. And remember, just like life, not every mystery can be solved with a sharp sword and a swift spell.

Loom Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

About three hours ago I booted up an emulated version of LucasArts' seminal adventure game, Loom, and began the quest of Bobbin Threadbare. About three minutes ago, I watched the credits roll over the end sequence.

They don't make 'em like they used to.

No, really, they don't. This game is so far from anything you'd expect to find on store shelves today that it's really a breath of fresh air to go back and play it. It's one of only two of the LucasArts SCUMM games that I never played (the other being Zak McKraken), and I'm very glad I just did.

The game is a traditional point and click adventure (although it's worth mentioning that it appeared quite early in the history of the genre). However, instead of being presented with a wide range of verbs such as "USE", "TAKE", et cetera, with which to manipulate your environment, you are instead given a magical distaff (because you're a Weaver, see) which you can use to cast spells. Spells are cast by playing sequences of four notes on the distaff, and you get those sequences from observing your environment. For instance, watching a knocked-over flask dripping onto the ground will play the tune for the "empty" spell, which you can then repeat on your distaff. (Playing the same tune backwards creates the "fill" spell.)

The story is simple, and yet rich, creating an intriguing world, and then deliberately not explaining more than it has to so as to retain an illusion of vastness that isn't borne out by the actual scope of the game. A lot of very elegant foreshadowing occurs. The very first spells that you learn play an important role in the climax of the game, giving you a nice sense of your victory coming from the nature of your origins.

The art is fantastic; the soundtrack (Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake) is well suited and well executed (in part by prolific 90s game composer George Alistair "The Fat Man" Sanger); the plot is coherent and well dialogued by Orson Scott Card. There's very nearly nothing that this game leaves you wanting.

Except for three things.

First, as you may have guessed from the start of this post, it's a short game. Three hours to complete, and I wasn't stumped by a single puzzle. It's a story driven game, and these days I'm playing it for free, but back in the day I probably would have felt a little cheated to have payed full price for this when comparable point-and-clicks being made by Sierra were significantly longer. Although it's worth saying that I'm playing Loom today, whereas I have no intention of going back and replaying the early Police Quest games.

Secondly, there's no in-game way of remembering your spells. You have to write down every musical sequence you hear on paper, because if you get up to the game's final moments and can't remember that spell for "healing" that you only heard once and haven't had a chance to try out yet... well, there's no going back to hear it again. I didn't have any trouble using pen and paper to do this, but still, these days you'd have at least an in-game notepad or something.

Thirdly, why has there never been a sequel for this game? The ending is a cliffhanger! The last words before the credits are pretty much the big bad evil thing threatening that you haven't heard the last of it, and you vowing to return to your homeland and undo the mischief that has been wrought upon it. And... that's the last we heard of Bobbin Threadbare for a couple of decades. Dagnabbit. Even Sam & Max is getting new games these days - where's my "Return to Loom"?

Anyway, it's been a nice afternoon running through this old classic, and if you haven't ever played it, it's well worth getting hold of a copy and working through it yourself.

Metal Gear Ac!d Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

Note: The title of Metal Gear Acid will be spelled throughout this post with an "i" instead of the pretentious exclamation mark.

Rewind a year, to PSP launch day in Australia. I tracked down to my local Electronics Boutique, and picked up my wonderful new preordered Sony handheld. I bought two games to go with it from the launch line-up. One was Wipeout Pure, which I haven't regretted for a second. The other was Metal Gear Acid.

Fastforward back to today, when I finally finished Metal Gear Acid after playing it on and off all year.

That play length doesn't represent a fantastic depth of content, or endless replayability, or fantastic multiplayer. It's accounted for entirely by a frustrating design, lots of redundant gameplay, and a rather dull plot. Were I not a complete Metal Gear fanboy, I can promise you that I would never have finished it at all.

It's my own fault, really. I had such a good experience with Metal Gear's last handheld outing on the Gameboy Colour (also known as Metal Gear: Ghost Babel) that I just kept hoping that the PSP incarnation would measure up to the rest of the series. But I was disappointed.

Good Points
* Metal Gear Acid tries something new, and takes a risk, which is always to be commended. It replaces the tried and true Metal Gear tactical espionage action with a turn-based strategy where your actions are taken through playing action cards drawn from a customisable deck.
* The graphics are highly comparable with Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation and are an excellent early demonstration of what the PSP is capable of.
* Firing weapons feels appropriately visceral.
* The soundtrack and sound effects are reasonably good and certainly don't feel out of place in a Metal Gear game.
* The collectable cards are full of Konami/Kojima fanservice, with references to all the other Metal Gear games (including Ghost Babel), Zone of the Enders, and Policenauts.
* Many of the cards trigger short skippable movies when played showcasing relevant footage from the games they're drawn from.
* Coordinating two characters at once is occasionally fun and makes for an interesting spin on some classic Metal Gear gameplay; for example, one character can tap a wall to attract guards while the other sneaks past in a different direction.
* There are a couple of good set piece boss battles, notably the two battles against Clown and the final battle against Metal Gear.

Bad Points
* Like most Metal Gear games, being stealthy (supposedly the aim of the game) is disproportionately difficult and poorly rewarded. Combined with the overall frustrating nature of the game, there's a strong temptation to just run and gun.
* The difficult overall is balanced poorly. Later decks effectively let you "stop time" and just run circles around enemies, dispatching entire stages of soldiers before they can get a shot off. Conversely, early stages before the cost reducers and stealth camo become available can be punishingly annoying.
* Despite a wide range of cards available, you end up using very few of them. Certain classes of weapon (such as the shotgun) are neutered by poor range, high cost to fire, and a relative dearth of ammo. A wide range of pistol weapons are made irrelevant by being simply unable to do relevant damage to an enemy. Most of the weapon power-ups such as "Head Shot" and so forth are not worth the time due to (again) a high cost, and the fact that they vanish over time or after a single use. Most of the novelty effect cards are.. well, a novelty.
* Many situations in the game see you using just one of the two characters available to you. (A favourite tactic of mine was to have a firepower character and a stealth character.) This means that you have to keep flicking back to the unused character and telling them to wait, which can be frustrating.
* There are many long sequences of sitting in an area where you've already killed all the enemies and either slowly crossing the area using movement cards or waiting for a specific card to cycle into your hand.
* Some of the boss fights are underwhelming.
* The plot is rubbish. No, really, even for a Metal Gear game. It tries to be filled with twists and surprises, but the execution just feels childish and contrived, rather than the mixture of confusing and deep that the rest of the series regularly achieves.
* [Spoiler] The game ends with you defeating Metal Gear, and then watching every other surviving villain character being defeated by NPCs or escaping. Not delivering a showdown with the mastermind behind events leaves me feeling cheated.
* The nature of the deck building system requires you to repeatedly replay stages to earn more points to buy cards with. Very frustrating.
* The game doesn't include any of the head-games that the Metal Gear series is famous for. Nothing on the scale of Psycho Mantis, Arsenal Gear, The End or The Sorrow is present in the game.


The Metal Gear series COULD have worked as a card-driven turn-based strategy, but this particular game took a couple of wrong turns unrelated to its new format. I think where Metal Gear Acid went wrong can be summarised by two main points.

1) Metal Gear Acid fails to capture what made the Metal Gear Solid series so exciting: innovative and exciting boss battles, quirky humour, engaging characters, imaginative and surprising sequences of "thinking outside the box", and a rewarding climax.

2) Metal Gear Acid tries to use "all the rules all the time". It would have benefited endlessly from some context-sensitive mechanics. For example, allowing free and unlimited movement when all enemies on a stage have been cleared, or allowing you to set a character to "sleep" when you don't intend to use them for a while.

By all means, try this out if you're a Metal Gear fan. It's not a total disaster. But were it not for its position near the PSP's launch and its relationship to a successful franchise, I doubt anyone would remember it this long after its release.

Now, I DO have the sequel sitting on my shelf, which promises that it's learnt from its mistakes. I'll try it out once I've had time to forget the original, and see whether it delivers.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Carnival of Feminist SF Fandom

[News] [Literature] [Film]

I know most of the people who read this blog are here for gaming-related discussion. However, I also know that there's a reasonable contingent reading this because they know me, and a few more seeing it vicariously through the magic of my syndicated LJ feed. That second category of readers happens to include a fair number of fangirls, published authors, feminists, and other such entertaining aberrations, and seeing as many of those readers probably don't read the same gaming blogs that I do, I'd like to specifically draw their attention to a post by the fantabulous Lake Desire over at New Game Plus.

Short version: apparently there is a Feminist SF Carnival afoot. Says the description of the Carnival:
The Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Fans periodically collects posts from the hazy side-reality where feminist social consciousness meets the outer limits of the imagination. This is to draw attention to lesser known bloggers, to bring individuals of like-minded (or at least, understanding) interests together, and to foster the growth of feminist fan communities.
Basically, if you have something feminist SF to say (and I know that you do!) then blog it, and submit the blog to the individuals running this carnival scam by going here. If anyone reading this does get involved, by the way, let me know, and I'll sling you some more linkage.

Bad Romance Novel Plots #1


Steel-Hard Love

When spunky farmer’s daughter Laura had half her body replaced with titanium, she thought her days of love were over.

But she hadn’t counted on the prehistoric charm of Thog. Transported from the distant past by the Goddess of Love to save mankind’s future, this insufferable yet strangely magnetic caveman may have what it takes to make steel flesh feel again.

On the run from the time-travelling detectives of Scotland Yard and their own forbidden desires, will Laura and Thog find true love at last in the harsh streets of tomorrow’s flying cities?


This is one of a number of "really bad romance novel back covers" I worked up a while back in response to a challenge from Julia. Unless I am stopped, there will be more - oh yes, there will be more. Post your own!

Sidebar Updates

[Site News]

The following pictures taken at Conflux come thanks to Japester. More pics here.

Okay, I chatted to a bunch of Perth people at Conflux and expressed an intention to add their web presences to my sidebar in a horrible nepotistic link-fest. So the following is the list of people I've found and added under "Blogs of Note", and the people I'm hunting down if they currently have a web presence.

Wanted: Kandace (left), Rick (right)

Added: James as "ascetic_hedony" from the blog "Minimalist Hedonism"

Added: April (in the red) as "Alkland", Kaneda (in the white) as "Kae-dash" Wanted: Magical Trevor (bottom of frame)

Added: John (right) as "Harveystoat" Wanted: Jo (left)

Added: Lisa (center of frame) as "Moonbug" at the blog "One Planet At A Time...". That blog seemed to be shrouded in a veil of secrecy so I'm glad to have received permission to make it known to the world at large. By the way, I'm pretty sure that's a certain Battersby person to the right of frame, and to the left of frame is another individual who shall remain nameless because she lives in the same house as me and will punch me if I name her on my blog. 8-)

Mel ("Melelel") and Paul ("Arkem") get links too but I don't have pictures of them. Paul doesn't seem to update a lot anyway (either that or it's all friends locked) so the link's really just for interest.

Also I've added a link to the wonderful Ms Juanita of Perth fame, seeing as you can't visit anyone's LJ these days without seeing her musings plastered across their friends page. If I can't avoid the steamtrain, I may as well board it, kill the driver, and take this thing to Mexico.

As always, if you'd prefer to NOT have your name associated with your blog on my page, leave a comment or email me and I'll make the magic happen.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Guitar Hero

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]
"Well, the E-flat, it's doable, but the diminished ninth, you know... it's a man's chord. You could lose a finger."
- Oz, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, What's My Line Part 2
I'd just like to say thank you to everyone who recommended playing Guitar Hero. The game has just come out Down Under. I've picked up my copy and I'm pleased to report it may well be The Greatest Game Ever Made (TM). Rarely has a game so instantly and enthusiastically made me smile.

I got my copy from JB Hi-Fi. They were showing footage of the game down there, which actually looked kind of dodgy, but I thought to myself, "Well, I understand it's about the gameplay, not the graphics." Forget that - with Guitar Hero, it's all about the oversized novelty guitar controller, definitely one of the greatest innovations in game control ever created. The switch-like strum bar and the wah-wah control were pretty awesome, but what really secured its place in controller history was when I discovered that to begin really rocking out (and start the audience clapping along) you had to do no more than tilt the contoller vertically in classic air guitar style.

The song list is great - I think I've conquered I Love Rock And Roll on every difficulty now, and I'm working my way through Smoke on the Water, Take Me Out and No One Knows. There's 30 "A-list" songs, and then about (I think) 10 or so bonus tracks from mostly B-grade and garage bands. As always with rhythmn games, no matter what IS included in the game, you can't help but think about some noteworthy omissions. Personally I'm a little disappointed that I don't get an opportunity to go nuts on AC/DC's Thunderstruck.

I still haven't mastered the intricacies of "hammering on" and so forth, but even so I can't even contemplate how anyone can pull off some of the face-melting solos in the later tracks on medium difficulty or above. No One Knows, for example, is a reasonably blistering piece even on the easiest difficulty. I barely survived it on medium, and hard has me weeping in a corner. On expert it looks as though it requires a number of fret-changes per second significantly higher than my typing speed! What kind of God would allow that?

Um, so, yeah, it's at my place and people in the area are welcome to come try it out. If it sustains my interest more than a couple of weeks I might give thought to picking up a second controller for some head-to-head axe grinding.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Superman Returns Print Ad

[News] [Film] [Computer Gaming] [Comics]

You're almost certainly aware of Superman. You're probably aware of the upcoming movie, Superman Returns. You have a good chance of being aware of or at least guessing at the existence of a forthcoming computer game of the movie of the comic.

What's interesting is the advertising. My copy of the DC comic 52 Week 5 came with a full page print ad for the game on the back cover. No surprises there; half of every comic these days is plastered with ads for bad console games. What's surprising is the tack the ad took.

In the centre of the ad are a few fairly tiny screenshots of the game. And around the outside of the ad are, get this, interviews with the developers. We get the standard excited blurb about how awesome the game is... and then we launch right into quoting one of the developers on exactly how they set about making a control scheme for Superman's flight powers that doesn't suck. They talk about the challenges of accurately modelling the massive landscape of Metropolis, and making it big enough to be interesting without being bewildering. They talk about pacing out boss fights with shorter "save the civilian" missions and mixing the big and small scale objectives. They, in short, make an honest attempt to sell you on the game design, rather than the flashy graphics or the licence title. And all this in a game coming out of Electronic Arts!

I think I may have a heart attack. By the way, it would be totally awesome if anyone out there can provide me with a digital image of the ad in question; I'm scanner-deprived and I can't find it on the web.

The Skull Beneath The Skin

[Game Design]

Life's too short to not enjoy yourself.

You've probably heard these words before. They're almost cliched. But heard from the lips of someone who's had a near-death experience, they take on an all new meaning. I recently had the pleasure of talking to such a person at Conflux. They were in a car accident, and could well have died, but they survived, and had the opportunity to see their life in a whole new light. They reassessed their world, their understanding of life, and their own mortality.

Were we designing games, we'd call this an immersion-breaking experience.

Breaking the Immersion

Breaking immersion in games occurs when an in-game event causes a player to perceive the gap between the game and the thing that the game is intending to simulate. It occurs when we remember that the player is not the character, that the NPC is not really a living being, that the world does not go on changing when we turn the power off. It occurs when we understand, as Magritte tried to show us, that the picture of the pipe is not the physical object of the pipe.

Press Spacebar to Respawn

The most classic example of immersion-breaking gameplay is death. The moment comes when you run out of health, when you fall down the bottomless pit, when you encounter one homing missile too many, and you die. And yet the player goes on. The game takes an abrupt right-turn from reality as we understand it and asks us "Continue?". It prompts us to load a save file, or to respawn, or to start again from the beginning, and we dive back into the flow. As Superman said to Green Arrow, "Death doesn't mean as much as it used to."

Fearing The Reaper

It sucks to die. It's not fun to lose progress, to fail the challenge, to repeat gameplay you've already conquered. And game design these days is moving more and more towards less immersion-breaking ways of representing fail-states - or eliminating fail-states altogether in favour of the mere absence of a win-state. But are we missing out? By moving into a safer, more friendly, world, are we abandoning the thrill that can make life so sweet?

Life In Purgatory

We may be facing a crossroads in game design. Given the choice, would we rather have one short lifetime on the rollercoaster, or an eternity in a cushion-lined purgatory? We're living a real-world where every cliff has a safety rail, where our CD cases have rounded "safety corners", where the government bans dangerous recreational substances in the interests of our own safety. With the horizons of thrill receding on all fronts... do we really want to chain the reaper? Do we want to tame the electron frontier?

Insert Eye-Related Pun Here

[News] [Personal]

Quick news: Went to an optometrist this morning to see if maybe what has been causing my headaches is an eye problem. Apparently not; not only do I not need corrective lenses, but the optometrist described my vision as "superhuman". I'll be engaging in tests to see if this is actually true, and to discover whether or not I can fire lasers from my retina. Plus the optometrists were total sci-fi geeks, so good news all round.

So... uh... and I think there's a game design related lesson in that for all of us. Yep. Certainly not off topic.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

LFG, 40-Man Raid On Zerg Overmind

[News] [Computer Gaming]

In the well hallowed journalistic tradition of sandwiching other people's press releases between thin slices of personal opinion (thanks Corvus!), I present the following news of doubtful reliability. It comes to me through Raph Koster's link to F13's understanding of a conference delivered to Wall Street by Blizzard's parent company, so the Chinese whispers may at this point be growing a little attenuated, BUT:
Says Vivendi: All Blizzard Franchises Will Become MMOGs.
That's really all I have. World of Starcraft, World of Diablo...craft... World of LostVikingCraft? Oh, and also, apparently Blizzard have actually realised that there may be a MMOG market who likes their sessions of continuous gaming maxing out at under two hours. Too late for WoW, not too late to make a Starcraft MMOG that doesn't suck.

Read F13's post-thingy here.

UPDATE: Lies, all lies. Wow, who knew that bloggers on the internet could report things which weren't completely true? I'm so disillusioned. (See something closer to the truth here.)

The Devil In The Detail

[Game Design] [RPG]

"I would rather be dragged through a knothole sideways than play one of my own games using all the crunchy bits."
- Steve Jackson, creator of GURPS

Last Saturday morning as part of the proceedings of Conflux I attended the game design workshop run by Steve Jackson in the executive lounge at Rydges Lakeside. It was apparently a version of a talk he gave at Conclave over in New Zealand, but scaled down from six hours to two. It contained about 45 minutes of RPG design, 45 minutes of boardgame design, and a half hour or so of questions.

Steve Jackson is, of course, the founder of Steve Jackson Games, and the creator of GURPS, the Generic Universal Role Playing System. GURPS was created in 1986 as a system promising adaptable rules to allow you to roleplay in virtually any setting in time or space, and it's one of the few RPGs to ever give D&D/D20 a serious run for its money. The system is still in print today, has literally hundreds of source books, and maintains an active player base and fan community.

I hate the damn system, but that's beside the point. 8-)

One of the points Steve made was that, early in designing a new tabletop RPG, you'll be faced with a decision - do you want to design a narrativist RPG (where the story and the experience takes priority), or a simulationist RPG (where the rules intend to provide as realistic a simulation as possible of the relevant systems of the setting)? Steve's answer: "The answer is narrativist - now let's move on."

This may seem an odd answer, coming from the creator of the game that could arguably be considered to have the widest range of rulesets, tables, and stats in print out of any RPG, ever. Certainly GURPS is rule-heavy on a scale that even modern cases of source-book diarrohea such as White Wolf can still only dream of. Steve calls this plethora of situation-specific miscellanea the "crunchy bits" of GURPS.

Most modern tabletop gamers have moved well past the idea of using all the rules all the time. It's easy to move on from - it's literally impossible to run a game of D20 or GURPS with slavish attention to every published mechanic. For many, myself included, the realisation that the rules are getting in the way of gameplay leads to a gradual move away from the concept of game rules entirely.

But Steve's talk, I think almost by accident, made a connection in my mind that I've never made before. In my thinking on games, I've got into the habit of talking about two sorts of mechanics. The first, which I called rules, were the structures that were in place to control, limit, and arbitrate the players, to constrain and challenge them, and to ultimately define the "fail state" of the game (usually death). I've largely abandoned rules when running games of my own design. The other side I've been thinking of as gimmicks, which are rules which enhance the flavour and atmosphere of the game. A rule is the limit of the game; a gimmick is the uniqueness of the game and the reason to play it.

It's a largely artificial distinction, and not always easy to draw, which is why I've never spoken much about it before. But it may be more useful than I thought. I think all of the above is a long way of saying that there are fair rules, and there are fun rules. They can meet, and they can overlap, but they don't have to.

The conventional wisdom of gaming rules suggests that they're much like a combination of laws and identification badges; they exist to make sure that no character has an "unfair advantage" over either the other players or the gameworld at large, and to define the nature of characters and other game entities. This is just rubbish thinking, of course. Statistics have to be the least useful way of defining a character ever; I imagine there'd be very few characters in literature who'd be recognisable through a numerical evaluation of their abilities, and that's certainly not what makes them memorable.

Rather, rules are like the craft of film. Rules are your camera angles, your lighting, your editing. Much as a standard shot of a person entering a room can be turned into a shot of horror and suspense through the use of an extremely low angle, dutch tilt, and backlighting, so too can a scene in a game be imbued with terror through a punishing system of tracking damage. Hits come often, a character can only survive a couple, and there's virtually no defence. Instant slasher flick.

Should we use that damage system all the time? Of course not. Should we even use it consistantly throughout the session? No. It's applicable to that scene. If we're running a slasher flick or survival horror game, it's probably the thing to use in the first scene to establish the threat as credible, and maybe bring out again for the final battle, but if we don't back off for the meat of the game we'll have a group of players so terrified and traumatised that they'll be cowering in the corner for fear of sudden, unavoidable death.

And so if we're going to use rules, maybe this is the way to use them. To approach rules based on the atmosphere they convey, on the gameplay they engender, rather than on the basis of what they claim to simulate. Have "scary rules" and "romantic rules" and "time pressure" rules and so forth, and take another step towards real storytelling in tabletop roleplaying.

Thanks to Steve for the workshop and for giving permission to use the quote at the top of the post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Conflux is Over

[News] [Events]

So much for daily updates on Conflux... a hectic schedule of programming combined with a wealth of great people to chat to and an annoying shuttle between the venues to render the idea of posting pretty much a pipe dream.

What's more, the whole thing looks like it's left me with a throat infection. Here's hoping lots of honey tea and vitamins has me back on my feet in time for a party next Saturday.

Short version - Conflux was awesome. Lots of fun had by all. I met new people, got to know some old people better, celebrated my birthday, and actually even attended some panels. Right now I'm feeling wiped out and the room with my computer is ice cold so details will have to follow. Thanks to everyone I caught up with who helped to make the convention so excellent.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Conflux - Friday 9 June

[News] [Events]

News from Day 1 of Conflux 06.

Headed into the National Museum with the fantastic Danny Oz (who crashed with us last night) and found everyone still setting up. With nothing to do, I took myself into Civic for breakfast and some comic shopping. Picked up the new trades of JLA, Outsiders, and Batman, as well as single issues 52 Week 5, Outsiders #37, Hulk #95, and Batman #652 and #653. More on those titles in a separate post, maybe. Eventually I headed back to the convention where I was able to greet friends from Canberra, Perth, Melbourne, and guests including Jack Dann, Dan Abnett, and Nick Stathopoulos. Special mention goes to Maxine Macarthur for fantastic last minute panel-wrangling, Michael Kraaze for being a sport about panels he wasn't informed he was on, and the always fantastic Stuart Barrow, Barbara Robson, Bec Handcock, April Rutkay, Margie Levingston, Gillian Pollock, and Ben Watley-Smith for just being around.

12 pm - Art Show
Upstairs at the National Museum the dust is not only forming words but also some amazing international quality artwork. It's an absolutely eye-melting field, and I have been possessed by the urge to buy every last bit of it. I tried to note the names of some of the highly impressive newcomers, but sadly trained monkeys stole my paper, so all I can do is say that you can see some absolutely gorgeous art of a far-beyond-professional standard from regular convention exhibitors Marilyn Pride, Shane Parker, and Nick Stathopoulos, as well as some gems from guest artists Les Peterson and Shaun Tan. Well worth your time just to come see this exhibition even if you miss the rest of the convention, and it's free entry to boot. Showing all weekend.

1 pm - Dealing With Adaptation
Seeing as I was going to be on the "dark twin" of this panel later, I wandered into the first adaptation panel, starring Sean McMullen, Jonathan Hardy, Mal and Dean from Inventive, and Steve Jackson. It wasn't a bad panel - Jonathan Hardy is a deceptively humble guest with decades worth of anecdotes. Sean also has decades worth of anecdotes, which he made a valiant attempt to cram the entirety of into this panel. Steve looked a bit lost through most of the panel as it was mostly focused around adapting into films, rather than his obvious specialty of games.

4 pm - Adaptation: The Optioning and Filmmaking Process
Starring Mal and Dean, myself, Sean McMullen, Jonathan Hardy, Kaaron Warren, and Kaaron's producer from local company Bearcage Productions, Michael Tear. A huge panel which Dean did a great job of keeping in line. We probably wasted too much time rambling and should have spent more time on the legal issues of option agreements, but what's done is done. The audience seemed like they didn't think it sucked, and they outnumbered us, so that's a good sign.

6 pm - Dinner with Steve, Monica and Andy
The guys from Inventive dragged me out for some Singaporean cuisine with Steve Jackson, his partner Monica, and a fellow by the name of Andy Smith from Prophecy Games. (Prophecy are a new ACT company formed mostly of former Irrational Games talent.) Dean and Mal wanted to talk options in game development for properties, and I got to see what happens when TV people pitch game ideas. Also talked casual MMOGs and the developing trend of ARGs with Steve and Monica, which was great. Steve took the time to direct all and sundry who are interested to the blog of Daniel James, creator of Puzzle Pirates. Steve also told the tale of hanging out in Richard Garriott's garage, seeing him working on some crazy game called "Akalabeth", and saying, "Hey, you could make a fortune with things like this!" Steve Jackson responsible for the origin of the Ultima series? Possibly not. Let's file this under "apocrypha".

Anyway, dinner went so long I missed both the opening ceremony and the cocktail party, so that sucked. I did get a cocktail though, called a Jade, apparently made with lots of blue curacao. Tasty! Among the things I missed out on through dinner were:
* Talking further with Jo, who I met tonight and seems worth knowing.
* Going to the room party of James, which would have undoubtedly been debaucherous and heaps of fun.
* Catching up with any of the great people at the con I haven't chatted too much yet, not the least of which is Bec Handcock.
* Seeing more of April's geek chic - she was wearing a slinky black dress with the Autobot and Decepticon icons picked out in sequins across the back and chest! Sorry, no photos available at this stage.

Tomorrow I'm moving into the hotel, going to Steve's game design workshop, appearing on Inventive's panel where they'll roll the Silicon Spies trailer, and capping it all off with an impromptu birthday celebration for my good self to mark the occasion of my 26th year of life coming to an end. Should be busy.

If you'd like more detail on anything in this post leave a comment and I'll oblige.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Conflux 06 Media Centre

[News] [Events]

In the style of pretentious online gaming magazines everywhere, I'm declaring this post the Conflux 06 Media Centre. From Thursday night until midnight Monday I'll be posting live (or semi-live) from Rydges Lakeside and the National Museum on the happenings and goings on at the third annual Conflux science fiction and fantasy convention! This post will be available all week through the "Post Collections" heading of my sidebar, but in any case I advise you to bookmark it now and check back every six hours like some kind of crack addict hanging out for a fix.

*Update: That... uh... didn't happen. There were no regular posts. BUT you can check out the Conflux related posts from before and after the convention below.

Past posts

June 14
The Devil in the Detail
June 13
Conflux is Over
June 09
Conflux - Friday 9 June
June 05
Conflux and the Grandfather Paradox
June 04
Con Guest Bounty Hunt
Conflux - Panels Ahoy!
May 24
Conflux 06 on the Horizon!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More Non-tendo Characters for Wii Smash Bros

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Joystiq has brought my attention to news that Solid Snake will NOT be the only new non-Nintendo character making an appearance in the forthcoming Super Smash Bros Brawl for the Wii. Apparently a further one or two third-party characters will appear in the game. (link)

Speculation has Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega), Mega Man (Capcom) or someone from the Soul Calibur roster (Namco) as frontrunners. Sonic and Mega Man clearly have the history and the close relationship with Nintendo to make them likely choices. A Soul Calibur fighter doesn't really fit the atmosphere of SSB but it would make some sense given Link's appearance in the Gamecube SC2. A close runner up fan favourite is Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil.

For what it's worth, my money's on something from Squeenix's stable. What with the PS3 looking so shaky, Square-Enix are definitely not going to want to be tied in to being Sony's poster child right now, and tossing Sephiroth or a chocobo into something like SSB not only will win them points with Nintendo but will also help build (or rebuild) a Final Fantasy fan base among the Nintendo loyal.

Anyone have any alternative bets?

Primetime Adventures

[Now Experiencing] [RPG]

Craig over at Project Perko recently made this post. I made some comments, as it's a topic I'm interested in, and now some events have been set in motion. Basically, what we were discussing was:

a) There's no inherent need in a tabletop RPG for the storyteller/plotmaster to be the same player as the world coordinator/dispute resolver.

b) There's no inherent need to have a predetermined plot for an RPG, or even have creating the plot be the job of a sole player.

c) All players are not created equal; some people are just naturally more outspoken or given to creating narrative and taking leadership roles. That creates problems for including the less vocal players.

Well, Craig took a move that I think I'll be thanking him for for quite some time, and happened to mention that we're not alone in considering these issues. Apparently they've been dealt with very nicely, thank you very much, in a fantastic little RPG called Primetime Adventures.

Well, with cries of "Huzzah!" and "It must be mine!" I instantly wandered over to the publisher's site and shelled out a few bucks for the PDF download (they were all out of hardcopy), and let me tell you, this looks like one hell of a game.

The premise is that players cooperate to create one (or more) episodes of an ongoing TV show. One player takes the role of producer, and controls the atagonists and some elements of the world at large. Everyone else gets one key cast member of the show. The producer doesn't necessarily bring a story to the table; instead, players pitch show concepts to each other until something results in a bunch of nodding heads. Once a concept gets the vote of approval, the specifics are hammered out, including agreeing on a Tone - will it be humourous, violent, dark, realistic, supernatural, romantic? Players are expected to play to the tone.

Character creation is done as a group, rather than as individuals. Everyone needs to end up with someone they're happy playing, but it's also important that there's variety across the cast. Not everyone can be an antisocial loner with a chip on his shoulder.

Then a 5 to 9 episode season is plotted out, and each character is assigned a screen presence for each episode. That's right - from the start of the game, it's agreed how many sessions there'll be, and who'll be the "heroes" of each session. Screen presence is assigned through a bidding-type system, where essentially you only get to the be the "star" of one session, and then have varying levels of importance in the other sessions.

Screen presence translates through into the rules mechanics - the star, or "spotlight character" of each session is simply better and more capable than everyone else for that session. Problems are more likely to require the intercession of that protagonist to solve, and the world as a whole is more malleable to the spotlight character's wishes. The season-plotting system means everyone gets a turn to be the lead character.

The other great thing about the season plotting is that you specify each character's issues for each episode in advance. For example, if you're going to be dealing with your tragic past in episode 4, you know that that's coming up way back in episode 1, and everyone concerned can foreshadow it. At the same time, because you know that the time for that plot point will come, you don't have to try and drag the story around to it to make sure that it gets resolved, and can take the first three episodes as they come.

Every character has "edges" - the things that they can do exceptionally, or that no one else can do. A character is the primary agent in plot points involving their edge. They have "connections", which are essentially supporting cast members that enter the plot through that character's agency. They may also at their discretion have a nemesis or arch-rival, for no game advantage other than the fun of having one.

Plot creation is by consensual brainstorming - the lead character of the scene sets the pace, with suggestions from everyone else, but players can mix things up by spending "fan mail", which essentially works similar to drama dice in 7th Sea or void points in Legend of the Five Rings, with a sort of bidding system going on - one fan mail equals one plot change.

The rules also include special rules for pilot episodes, two part episodes, and a whole host of great examples to get your imagination working. It's very story focused, with practical help for making coherent plots, having meaningful and constructive conflict, and for creating a series that grows and gets better over time - essentially how to move past a killer first session and into a quality ongoing campaign.

If you, like me, have moved from D&D to World of Darkness, and on to L5R and 7th Sea, and are now looking for the next evolution in story-driven tabletop roleplaying, this might just be your thing. I'm armed with the rules, and looking to run at the very first opportunity, so bail me up at Conflux or elsewhere to get in on the ground floor!

Tales of Phantasia Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

Last night I finally finished Tales of Phantasia (the GBA version, as played on my DS). Feel free to bring yourself up to date on my earlier thoughts as posted a couple of weeks ago (link).

I'm pleased to say that the horrible difficulty I reported on was a temporary aberration, and after finishing that section of the game I was able to progress through to the end with a minimum of grind. The game's unique battle system, which crosses a Final Fantasy style party screen with Street Fighter-esque real time 2D combat, means that certain classes of attack are significantly more powerful than others. Specifically, monsters who are direct-damage spellcasters, or who fly, or who can cause paralysis or petrification are exponentially more dangerous than their more standard peers. And, of course, flying spellcasters, or spellcasting paralysers, are another order of danger again.

Probably the most annoying parts of the game were the two places where progress depended on having an item equipped, without clearly signalling to you which item you need. In one case, the item was obtained as a random drop from a fairly rare enemy, and you needed six of them. In the other case, the items were more appropriately placed in chests and on NPCs but had I not access to a walkthrough to tell me what I was looking for I may have given up in frustration.

I didn't end up doing the Colosseum and Morlia Mineshaft quests (the ubiquitous Final Fantasy style optional boss battles), but did complete pretty much all the other content. The ultimate battle against Dhaos was almost the exact level of difficulty to be appropriately significant without being frustrating, but it did go for way too long. To beat him, you pretty much have to stop him from getting off an attack by constantly interrupting. Without Dhaos really attacking once, it still took about twenty minutes to finish the evil bugger off.

Finishing the game resulted in the obligatory New Game Plus option, along with a minigame that I really can't be bothered trying. I'm done with Phantasia - I reached the end at exactly the time I was losing all tolerance for it, so that worked out pretty well.

Overall, I'd say this game was better and deeper than Final Fantasy IV but not as good as V. It may seem a little Square-centric to rate it in that way, but really, I keep finding it hard to believe that this game wasn't a product of Squeenix - I've never played a non FF game that came so close to the key aspects of Final Fantasy design. It's a total knockoff - but it's a pretty decent one, that captures most of what makes FF good.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Conflux And The Grandfather Paradox


I've just noticed that apparently the Conflux panel "Adaptation: The Optioning and Filmmaking Processs" (which I am on) is being run entirely for the benefit of all those people who couldn't attend the EXACT SAME IDENTICAL PANEL three hours earlier, under the name "Dealing With Adaptation", in the same room, with all the same panellists, except that the role of Greg will be played by Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games.

Be sure to take in the staggering implications. You can see what the exact same discussion would be like, with and without me. It's for all intents and purposes time travel, people! You get to see through the mirror darkly at a scary alternate universe in which I created GURPS.

Oh, and I think that Kaaron Warren is also missing from the alternate panel. Perhaps Steve killed and ate her; who knows? I know inventing GURPS would drive me to cannibalism. I have the odd feeling that my life is turning into a Charlie Kaufman movie.

Just Deserts

[News] [ARG]

Good things come to those who... er... turn their blogs into surrogate corporate advertising! A while back I posted this and this. Gears have turned, and so forth, and as a happy result those fantastic folks at Perplex City have now graced me with the following email:
Hi Greg,
Thanks so much for your kind words about Perplex City. This Monday, we'll finally be sending you some puzzle cards as a token of our appreciation!
Best regards and happy puzzling,
Perplex City Customer Services
Awesome! Free puzzly goodness! ... and yes, that IS the correct spelling of just deserts - don't get me started.

UPDATE: Also, if you're still not sure whether you want to play Perplex City, or just want to try out some of the cooler ARG stuff of the game on your schedule, not theirs, they've just added a puzzle-style walkthrough to bring you up to date, demonstrating some of the techniques you'll need to solve the larger puzzles of the plot. Completely free, rather short (about three or four solves needed to finish it) and not at all hard.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Con Guest Bounty Hunt


Alright, I've been horribly, horribly lazy and have not prepared the things I was intending to acquire from the internet prior to Conflux. I now require the following items, and I will pay some sort of reasonable premium to get my hands on them.

1 x Munchkin T-Shirt, new, that will remotely fit me (probably size large for a regular fit or XL for a loose fit), to be signed by Steve Jackson for the purpose of use during games of Munchkin

1 x Farscape somethingorother to be signed by Jonathan Hardy - all I have at the moment is DVD boxes, so some sort of a photo or something would rock.

These items are required prior to the this Friday night; I'd be happy to take them off people at the con itself. My Plan B, if I do not get these things, will be asking Steve to sign the Munchkin box and the "Bribe the GM" card, and getting Jonathan to sign the actual surface of the first Farscape DVD.

I'd also love something relevant for Andy Chambers to sign, but seeing as his current project for Blizzard is still top secret that pretty much limits it to things related to the Game of Thrones miniatures game (I just can't get excited about Warhammer 40K or Starship Troopers). Anyone got a Song Of Ice And Fire-art poster or something that he can scrawl on?

Conflux - Panels Ahoy!

[News] [Events] [Personal]

Alright, all you Conflux-goers. The full draft program including session times and panellists is now available here, just in time for the con next weekend. Congratulations to those involved in the programming for more or less successfully juggling such a huge list of events - very impressive job, guys and/or gals!

As of this writing, here's the panels that you can see me at.

Adaptation: The Optioning and Filming Process (Friday 4 pm)
Chair: Dean Toovey
Panellists: Jonathan Hardy, Sean McMullen, Mal Cumpston, Greg Tannahill, Kaaron Warren
Conflux says: "The last couple of years have seen a number of local writers' work optioned by filmmakers. Our panel talks about the process: what attracts a director to a story, what a story will gain from being filmed and what it may have to sacrifice, and the business of film options. "
I say: I'll be backing up Mal and Dean from Inventive on this panel. Sean is obviously the author of the fantastic Ice Keeper and Voice of Steel which have been optioned for development with Inventive. Kaaron's the author of the highly recommended short story collection The Grinding House - I wasn't aware she'd been optioned for something, it'll be great to hear her story. I have to confess as to having a blank as to who Jonathan Hardy is - surely we're not talking about Jonathan "voice of Rygel from Farscape" Hardy?
UPDATE: I understand it is, indeed, that Jonathan Hardy. Fantastic. I have to quickly scare up something Farscapy to get signed, and then work out how to pretend I'm relevant on this panel.

Inventive Entertainment: The Big Push (Saturday 3 pm)
Panellists: Dean Toovey, Mal Cumpston, Sean McMullen, Greg Tannahill
Conflux says: "From the local company developing the TV series Silicon Spies, the executive directors of Inventive Entertainment will present a sneak preview of the short film work in progress, some publicity clips, international trailers and a short insight into the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) brining Canberra, Australia 2079 to a screen near you."
I say: Between Dean and Mal doing their Silicon Spies bit, and Sean (who always has something worthwhile to say), I don't expect to be doing much talking on this one. I'll practice smiling and looking pretty.

Discworld Fandom (Sunday 10 am)
Panellists: Zara Baxter, Greg Tannahill, Justin Ackroyd, John Robertson
Conflux says: "Who is a Discworld fan? Well, probably, you are. Many groups have grown up around the genre celebrating different aspects of Discworldiness. Join us as we take a peak behind the closed doors of the Guildhouses to examine where we came from, where we're going, and what we'll find when we get there."
I say: As fantastic as it would be to do a panel with Justin, John, and the always delightful Zara, I haven't read a Discworld book in four years and I didn't put my hand up for this panel, so I've politely requested to step down. Probably by the time of the final programme I'll be gone from this session. Besides, 10 am the morning after my birthday is a bit unattractive...

Doctor Who: An Enduring Legend (Monday 11 am)
Chair: David Green
Panellists: Greg Tannahill, Chris Rattray
Conflux says: "What makes Doctor Who so popular? How can fans watch episodes over and over? Is there anything new that can be done with the Who world and character(s)? Panellists reflect on the show's enduring popularity and the elements that have made it great."
I say: I've Googled both of the fellows I'm on the panel with. You can too!

Villains, Supervillains, and Heroes, Oh My! (Monday 2 pm)
Chair: Greg Tannahill
Panellists: Dan Abnett, Jason Rand
Conflux says: "Can we have heroes without villains? Can we have superheroes without supervillains? What is the role of the villain in comics? How have they evolved? How deep is the dependency between antagonist and protagonist? Are they two sides of the same coin? Or are they opposing archetypes, destined never to find peace together?"
I say: Dan Abnett is the creator of Hairbutt the Hippo. Jason Rand is the creator of Small Gods. I'm a guy with a really big collection of Golden and Silver Age comics. If Dan and Jason are feeling energetic you won't hear much out of me, but just in case I'll bring along the complete list of Ant-Man/Giant-Man supervillains for comic relief, including quotes such as, "Ah, the porcupine - nature's ultimate fighting machine!" I take no responsibility for the camp title of the panel.

If you aren't a member yet, it's not too late to pay up. Don't miss out on the chance to see me attempting to entertain crowds!